If you're conscientious about recycling, the instinct is to try to put every component of every recylable object into the recycling bin. But in researching the subject over the years, I've learned something surprising: Some items, even though they're recyclable, can actually become a hazard in recycling centers.
So it goes for items like tiny balls of aluminum foil and plastic bottle caps, which are small enough that they can jam up the works or fall off the conveyors and end up in the trash anyway.
Depending on where you live, your county will decide how they want to handle these tricky items — some places won't take them, while others offer instructions to make sure they don't get lost in the sorting process.
Lids to canned goods fall into this gray category — can they be recycled, or not? The material is certainly recyclable," says Jessica Edington, a project associate at How2Recycle, a membership-based labeling program initiated by the Sustainable Packaging Coalition that's working to demystify the process by putting detailed recycling labels on packaged goods.
"Many metal cans containing things like foods and soups are made of tin-plated steel, and that material is definitely desirable for recyclers. In addition to aluminum cans (most beverage cans, as well as some cans of pet food), it's one of the most profitable recyclable materials, and sees some of the biggest carbon benefits from being recycled."
But while the material is desirable, lids — on their own — pose a particular problem. Because of their small size, they can fall through the sorting equipment at material recovery facilities. This means they could either flow into the wrong material stream (like, into the paper items) or make their way into our waterways.
So while the lids are technically recyclable, whether you can put it in with the rest of your recycling is up to the company that administers your recycling program.
The best thing to do, says Edington, is to keep the lids with the cans. "Insert them back into the can after it has been emptied and rinsed out. This increases their chances of making it through sortation properly to the metal recycling stream, ensuring that they get recycled. Bonus points if you are able to squish the top of the can together a bit so that the lid is less able to fall out again, or if you leave the lid slightly attached to the can when opening it."
If you do this, "Any recycling program that accepts aluminum cans should also accept lids that have been reinserted or are still attached to the cans," says Edington. Although if you're unsure, you should contact your local recycler directly for guidelines.
You can also use this trick for other small lids, like beer caps and plastic water bottle caps, says Edingoton. "They are too small to recycle on their own, but if you collect a bunch of them in an aluminum can until it's about halfway full, and then squish the top the can together so that they can't fall out, then you can recycle these tops as well."
In fact, the How2Recycle team has a new program that many brands (including Annie's and Poland Spring) are adopting and it involves clearer recycling guidelines — like "rinse and reattach lid" — so that it's easier for us all to figure out what to do.
If your curbside recycler does NOT take lids, you can collect them to take to a scrap metal recycler. And P.S.: If you're worried about the rubber or plastic coating on the underside of many can lids, don't. Earth911 says typically this material would be burned off in the melting process and would not contaminate the metal.